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July 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 3 · pp. 20–29 

The Influence of Fundamentalism on Mennonite Brethren Theology

J. B. Toews

We cannot use the label Fundamentalism today with the limited political frame Norman Furniss gave it in his book, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931. Ernest R. Sandeen in The Roots of Fundamentalism offered an excellent theological corrective, but his discussion does not reach beyond 1930 and today Fundamentalism is much more complex than it was then. 1 It has retained its dogmatic creedalism, its Darbyistic understanding of history and eschatology, and its claim of a literal hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures. Its organizational and functional forms, however, have changed. Because its emphases have penetrated the center of American Evangelicalism, they are much more difficult to isolate and define. However, we need not establish an exact delineation between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Rather we need to broaden the parameters of our considerations to examine the influences on Mennonite Brethren theology which have come from our exposure to American Fundamentalism and some forms of Evangelicalism. To understand Mennonite Brethren vulnerability to these influences, some introductory considerations are necessary.

Mennonite Brethren, a People of Simplistic Faith

The Mennonite Brethren share the character of the Anabaptist movement which Robert Friedmann called Existential Christianity. Friedmann further maintained that a theological system cannot be existential, and Existential Christianity cannot be pressed into a theological system. 2 Mennonite Brethren history confirms Friedmann’s statement. Their concern was for the reality of an existential faith.

Their commitment was to understand the Bible as it applies to the New Testament model of a redeemed community. 3 Their understanding of the Scriptures was identical with Menno Simons’. 4

Mennonite Brethren often used the phrase “Living Faith” (Lebendiger Glaube) to express their understanding of true faith. The phrase {21} was used as a contrast to the ethnic institutional religion of the larger Mennonite community in Southern Russia during the nineteenth century. This ethnic religion failed to express the vibrant existential reality of the New Testament church as Mennonite Brethren understood it. 5 The criteria of faith for the early Mennonite Brethren rested in the evidence of a new life based on repentance and an experience of personal conversion (John 3:3; 2 Cor. 5:17). Their assurance of sins forgiven and the inner witness of the spirit to their faith was tested against the evidences of new “being” and “relationships” as measured by the standards described in Gal. 5:22-25 as the fruits of the spirit. Their faith committed them to exemplify the character and relationships which the Scriptures showed in Jesus and which were taught by the apostles. To believe the Word of God was equated with living according to the Word of God, and the point of reference for their effort to interpret the Word of God was Menno’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine.

The records of early Mennonite Brethren Conferences and local churches (1876-1900) provide little evidence of doctrinal concerns. Even their confession of faith was regarded as descriptive rather than normative; it was never given equal status with the Bible. 6 Historically, Mennonite Brethren have not looked to a creedal statement for answers to questions arising out of the life of the church. Their question was always, “What does the Bible say?” 7 In summary, their understanding of salvation was rooted in a “Christocentric Theology.” To believe in Jesus as Savior for them meant “to follow Jesus in life” (Hans Denk). The model for the redeemed community, the church, was that of the apostolic fellowship, the church as found in the book of Acts. 8

The Openness of Mennonite Brethren to Others

The non-creedal orientation of the Mennonite Brethren gave them the liberty to fellowship with people from other evangelical bodies whom they considered to be “true believers.” 9 In the absence of strong doctrinal theological identification, this openness had inherent dangers. Pietistic Lutherans and Baptists from the West had free access to the Mennonite Brethren churches in Russia as well as in America because they had so much in common with them. Robert Friedmann speaks to the points of commonality in the two traditions.

Both groups justified their policy on the basis of the leadership of the Holy Spirit, which taught them the correct understanding of the Scriptures. Both claimed to live strictly according to the Bible, that is, neither had confidence in a Christianity of the theologians and scholars. Both were seriously concerned with a Christian reality which lies beyond church and worship, although they understood the ultimate nature of this Christian {22} reality differently. After all how could it be determined who possessed the “right” Holy Spirit except through the evidence of the same in life? 10

They nurtured an outgoing relationship with the German Baptists of Western Europe, even sharing with them in the Lord’s Supper though openly recording their variance with them on the relation of the true believer to government and war. The Alliance Fellowship of Blankenburg was a doorway which offered a broad contact with the Pietists of the West. 11 The chief influence that came through these contacts was millenarian eschatology.

That all these influences did not affect their New Testament concept of the church and other basic beliefs may be due to the fact that in Russia they were not only a believer’s fellowship but also an ethnic cultural entity. Their close relation to the larger Mennonite community tempered the effects of their theological exposure to the West. They were free to borrow from many theological sources without diminishing their understanding and concern for “a living faith.”


Mennonite Brethren in North America did not live in colonies as separate cultural and ethnic enclaves as was the case for three hundred years in Prussia, Poland, and Russia. A controlled corporate social, economic, and ecclesiastical setting could not be maintained in the new land. For some time the 1874-1900 immigrants and to a lesser degree, the migrants of the 1920s and 1930s succeeded in maintaining a fair degree of cultural identity. But for both groups the North American environment resulted in gradual but essential changes in social and ethical values. This cultural transition created an identity crisis which left them vulnerable to outside theological influences.

The cultural and social isolation of the Mennonite Brethren in Russia had never made it necessary for them to define and delineate the theological basics of their commitment to their Anabaptist heritage. Nor had their commitment to the Bible as expressed in the “Existential Christianity” described above demanded creedal formulations. And so they were theologically unprepared when, after 1930, they were exposed to the broad influence of fundamentalist Bible institutes, radio broadcasts, and Bible conferences.

We had opened ourselves to the influences of our American evangelical environment without any provision for examining the emphases and assertions of such influences. There is no evidence of any {23} systematic effort made in North America to focus the theology that is unique to our spiritual legacy. Only during the 1960s and 1970s were voices heard which called for us to be accountable with respect to our spiritual and theological identity. 12

How much Mennonite Brethren were affected by the “crusade for the truth” of American Fundamentalism may be illustrated by an episode from our history in the 1940’s. Up to that time ministers had been at the helm of higher education in the Brotherhood. In 1942 Dr. P. E. Schellenberg, one of the earliest Ph.D.’s from our fellowship, was called to the Tabor College presidency. His leadership raised immediate suspicion. Is a man with only “a secular education and not a minister-churchman” trustworthy? Can he give spiritual direction to the College? Leaders in the churches who had been influenced by fundamentalism expressed concerns. Students in the Bible department of the College were influenced by the suspicion of their pastors, and a leading student of the Bible department found it necessary to demonstrate his “crusader spirit for the truth.” Discovering the books The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones and How to Keep America Out of War by Kirby Page on the shelves, he took them to the librarian demanding that they be burned because they were, in the judgement of this zealous young Christian, “the vomit from Hell.” 13

The Committee of Reference and Counsel of the Conference was called to investigate the biblical trustworthiness of the College. The report of the Committee to the churches from the Chairman, Dr. A.H. Unruh, gave assurance that no issues of biblical faith were at stake at the College. The attacks, however, did not stop. The storm spread a spirit of fear. It became a “witch hunt” for modernism in our conference school.

The tension developed into a clash between an existential Christianity and one pressed into a creedal theological mold. Five areas of Mennonite Brethren faith have been affected by fundamentalism and some forms of American Evangelicalism.

Our Commitment to the Scriptures

Now that the orthodoxy of a believer is tested on the issue of an inerrant Bible, we may well examine our stance. The acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God for the Mennonite Brethren is “not the end of a chain of logic.” “It is much more the discovery of Christ through the witness of the Scriptures that God has spoken first through the prophets and later by His Son.” 14 For our forefathers, the reality of the supernatural defied all efforts of proof. To accept the Bible as the Word of God was for them an exercise of faith that found its verification of {24} genuineness in a life of obedience to the teaching and life of Jesus. In relation to the Bible, the Mennonite Brethren were historically fundamentalists with a small “f.” There was no room to question its divine origin and character or to doubt that it was sufficient for the redemptive purposes of God.

Evangelical fundamentalism has shifted the center of faith away from this to a creedal polemic which focuses on the inerrancy of non-extant autographs. The effort to produce a system of logic as proof for the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible and the struggle to defend the “inerrancy” of the Scriptures diverts attention from the center of the Bible, that of the person of God in Christ, and from the Holy Spirit who is the authority to guide us into all truth.

The polemic over this defense of the Bible within our brotherhood has today reached a level which endangers the unity of the fellowship. An interesting example of our commitment to the Scriptures as the Word of God occurred in British Columbia in the 1950s when the Revised Standard Version was released. The strong condemnation of this version by the fundamentalists led teachers and students of a Bible institute to join the crusade against modernism. A ceremonial burning of a copy of a Revised Standard Version was arranged with a pledge of commitment to the only true English Bible—the King James Version. Interestingly, the same creedal fundamentalists who then attacked the Revised Standard Version now enthusiastically accept the Living Bible, which is a free paraphrase of the original text.

Our Understanding of Conversion

Mennonite Brethren, who began with that understanding of the Scriptures which was the dynamic for the radical reformation of the sixteenth century, understood conversion to be a transformation of life. An individual’s change from being self-centered to being Christ-centered served as the evidence for true conversion. 15 To know God in the context of institutional religion without the evidences of a radically new life in Christ was not valid for them. The tension between a religion of “Mennonitism” and the Scriptural demand “ye must be born again” was the occasion for the Document of Secession of 1860.

A large segment of American Evangelicalism has accommodated the gospel to appeal to the values of a culture permeated by a “benefit syndrome.” A call to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” to have the benefit of security for the life to come in the absence of that second call, “whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me,” is a deceptive accommodation to man’s inherent selfishness and does not express the biblical teaching of conversion. {25} “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

The concept of the new birth as a work of the Holy Spirit to make all things new (2 Cor. 5:17) to some degree has been replaced with the appeal of “accepting Jesus Christ as Savior,” with an emphasis on the benefits of redemption. To “accept Jesus Christ” thus becomes “a smart thing to do” because it brings peace of mind in relation to one’s destiny after death. But the essence of conversion has been weakened.

Our Understanding of Discipleship

For Mennonite Brethren a genuine conversion was verified in a life of discipleship. To be a disciple was to express the character of Jesus in life.

This understanding of the Christian life focused strongly on Christians as a “people in the world but not of the world” (John 15:19-20). Their position on participation in politics and war was deeply rooted in the understanding that such participation could not be reconciled with the calling of a people of God “to show forth the praises (excellences) of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

This understanding of discipleship is a complete contrast to the strongly political character of evangelical fundamentalism. The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931, 16 and The Defender Magazine Crusade 17 are examples from the past. The Moral Majority under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, The Christian Voice, with the slogan “Christians for Reagan” and the National Christian Action Coalition are some of the political arms of evangelical fundamentalism in the present. 18

The effect on Mennonite Brethren of a close exposure to this sort of fundamentalism can be seen in the current effort to modify our historic position on peace, non-resistance, and the swearing of an oath under the cover that accommodations in this matter are justified for the sake of more effective evangelism. 19

The influence of some types of American evangelicalism on “lifestyle” can be measured by the fluctuating standards of present social and personal ethics. A limited analysis of this can be found in the doctoral dissertation of Peter Hamm and in the survey Anabaptists Four Centuries Later. 20

The late B.B. Janz, in a 1954 Conference message, spoke prophetically {26} in calling the Brotherhood to a responsible consideration of existing dangers for the faith and life of the Mennonite Brethren Church. He was then concerned about the loss of evidences of a “new creation” in conversions (child conversions and baptism of children), a trend toward worldliness endangering the Brotherhood as a people in the world but not of the world, and institutional organizations which replaced the interdependent character of a New Testament church. 21 Today, twenty-five years later, there may be a need to modify his identification of the symptoms which called forth his concern. But the dangers he warned against could well be greater than they were a quarter of a century ago.

Our Understanding of the Church as a Brotherhood

The Mennonite Brethren understanding of the church is possibly best expressed by Robert Friedmann in the statement,

The real dynamite in the age of the Reformation . . . was this, that one cannot find salvation without caring for his brother, that this ‘brother’ actually matters in the personal life . . . This interdependence of men gives life and salvation a new meaning. It is not “faith alone” which matters (for which faith no church organization would be needed) but it is brotherhood, this intimate caring for each other, as it was commanded to the disciples of Christ as the way to God’s Kingdom. 22

The character of an interdependent fellowship—a Brotherhood—is reflected from the Conference records of the years from 1864 to the 1960s and from the congregational minutes of local Fellowships. 23 The principle of interdependent responsibility in a local congregation included loving watchcare over the personal lifestyle, ethics, and community relations of each member. At times this care for each other became distorted in a spirit of legalism. The principle, however, has stood the test through one-hundred years of history. The pattern of a New Testament leadership enhanced the sense of Brotherhood, for the corporate body shared in the selection of leadership from within the Fellowship. 24

On the Conference level the same principle prevailed. The local congregations, in matters of faith and life, were interdependent in relationship to the Conference. 25

In contrast to these New Testament principles which have been applied in Mennonite Brethren history stands the strong spirit of independence {27} which American Fundamentalism has fostered in the individual believer as well as in the local congregation. The statement of Wes Michaelson is much to the point:

Because Evangelical spirituality has been so highly individualistic there usually has been little experience of the church as a community. What communal sense there is has resulted from a legalistic separation from the outside world than from reality of Koinonia as it is described in the New Testament. 26

From the beginning, Millenarianism in Europe and America—the womb of Fundamentalism—was known for its independence. Its Bible Institutes, radio broadcasts, Mission Societies, Bible and Prophetic Conferences, and other para-church programs carried no accountability to any specific community of faith. 27 The culture of individualism, plus a strong emphasis on independence in what is considered “the Lord’s work,” alters not only the biblical church concept of Mennonite Brethren but undermines also the basic teaching of salvation as a faith rooted in obedience to Christ, His Word, and His Church.

Our Understanding of Mission and Evangelism

The Mennonite Brethren Conference historically has been an evangelistic missionary movement. For the first fifty years of its history it championed the “True Believer’s Church” in the context of ethnic Mennonitism. They were also the instrument in the establishment of the Evangelical Baptist Movement in Russia. God used them to establish the Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada and in North Dakota. Their outreach extended also to the regions beyond—India, Africa and later to South America. Much of the motivation for this energetic evangelism came to them from the Darbyistic, Millenarian emphasis on missions. 28 The independent church movements and Faith Missions contributed much to the evangelistic concern of Mennonite Brethren. The response of many young people to service under Faith Missions reflects an insufficient degree of leadership for missions and evangelism within the Brotherhood.

However, this strong emphasis on “soul-winners” brought with it an under-emphasis of the interdependent relationship of the believers as members of the body of Christ. The lack of concern for a biblical, interdependent church community in American evangelical revivalism has no doubt influenced the Mennonite Brethren Church to move from an under-emphasis on soul winning (to some degree due to cultural isolation) to an overemphasis which has lessened our concern for the perfecting of the church. {28}


Much more would have to be said to cover this topic adequately. Much more analysis needs to be done. And Evangelical Fundamentalism is not solely responsible for the changes within our Brotherhood. Influences from without constitute only a test to the spiritual health and strength of a body. Our Brotherhood must take responsibility for the shifts in our character which have been discussed. Our vulnerability to trends which we recognize to be inconsistent with the character of the New Testament Church to which our forebears aspired is a testimony to the existence of serious ailments within the body. The spirit of tension, suspicion, and open attack historically characteristic of American Fundamentalism against those who do not share its creedal and eschatological formulations is today very prevalent in some of our circles. These are symptoms of an advanced condition of spiritual malnutrition. A further review of the way fundamentalism influences Mennonite Brethren theology, faith, and life may prove to be a revealing diagnosis of existing needs within the Brotherhood.

Fundamentalism has exalted the “work of the cross” but has been strangely silent about the “way of the cross” and the demand of Christian discipleship. 29 Is that statement a description of Mennonite Brethren theology today?


  1. Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (Yale University Press, 1954); Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (University of Chicago, 1970; reprinted by Baker Book House, 1978).
  2. Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press), pp. 27-29, 31.
  3. P. M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia, 1789-1910. English translation published by the Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Fresno, CA, p. 231.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p. 230, No. 83a.
  6. Confession of Faith, Mennonite Brethren 1902, p. 53; 1917, p. 47; 1976, p. 9.
  7. These observations are based on my sixty years as a member of the Mennonite Brethren Church, with fifty years of service in positions of leadership.
  8. Peter Martin Hamm, “Continuity and Change Among Canadian Mennonite Brethren” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, McMaster University, 1978), pp. 146-157.
  9. Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, 1902, p. 5.
  10. Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries (Goshen, Indiana: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949), p. 12. {29}
  11. J. B. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Identity and Theological Diversity,” Pilgrims and Strangers, ed. Paul Toews (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1977), p. 136.
  12. Note the series of articles which then appeared in the Mennonite Brethren Herald and the Christian Leader addressing the question of our spiritual and theological identity.
  13. Report from Mrs. Rachel Hiebert, Head Librarian at Tabor College at that time.
  14. J. C. Wenger, “The Inerrancy Controversy Within Evangelicalism,” in Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, ed. C. Norm Kraus Scottdale, PA: (Herald Press, 1979), p. 102.
  15. Myron Augsburger, “Modern Man and the New Man,” in Consultation on Anabaptist Mennonite Theology, ed. A. J. Klassen (Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970) p. 79.
  16. Cf. Furniss, passim.
  17. The Defender (later The Kansas City Missionary) was edited by Gerald Winrod and published in Wichita, Kansas (and Kansas City), 1933-1958.
  18. Lisa Myers, Universal Press Syndicate, Fresno Bee (July 9, 1980), pp. 1 and 4.
  19. See the Records of the United States Conference of Mennonite Brethren in St. Paul, August 14-17, 1980, and the consultation on the peace question in Hillsboro, March 20-22, 1980.
  20. Peter Martin Hamm, “Continuity and Change Among Canadian Mennonite Brethren,” pp. 167-171; J. Howard Kaufman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Herald Press, 1975), pp. 118-182.
  21. B. B. Janz, Canadian Conference Yearbook, 1954, pp. 10-15.
  22. Robert Friedmann, “On Mennonite Historiography and on Individualism and Brotherhood,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (April, 1944), 212.
  23. All such records are in the collection of Conference and congregational documents at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Fresno, California.
  24. John E. Toews, unpublished paper read at the Clearbrook Study Conference, Clearbrook, British Columbia, May 8-10, 1980.
  25. Constitution of the Mennonite Brethren Conference.
  26. Wes Michaelson, “Evangelicalism and Radical Discipleship,” in Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, ed. C. Norman Kraus (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), pp. 63-82.
  27. Sandeen, pp. 162-187.
  28. Ibid, pp. 182-187.
  29. Carl F. H. Henry, quoted in J. A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975), p. 376.
J. B. Toews is Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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